Below the fold is my long overdue discussion on IFBC. Sadly, this post comes with trigger warnings for: rape, antifeminism/misogyny, harassment, racism, and group policing.
I wish I was kidding.
Here’s the post in a nutshell:
- Photography without the consent of human subjects for non-news publications is unacceptable as a standard and must be changed.
- We must always consider the impact of privilege in our photography of human subjects.
- Harassment is NOT OKAY.
And I do not want to be part of a system where taking a good image is something that is encouraged over the needs of our subjects.
On the Saturday of IFBC 2014 in Seattle, Todd Coleman of Saveur and Tasting Table presented a talk on photography tips and tricks. His talk did have some useful concepts, like the use of aluminum foil for lighting effects. I don’t agree with his vocal distrust of natural light, but I get why he’d rather shoot with artificial light, and I’m always interested in hearing new ideas. However, I’m sad that the talk was mired in his poor treatment of his human subjects.
During this talk he said many things that were questionable at best on photography, especially concerning photographing subjects in restaurants and other establishments. Here is a snippet of what he said, quoted from my twitter feed:
We’re being encouraged to just take the photos, and “sometimes that involves not asking permission.”
“Photography in journalism is invasive.”
“I don’t ask permission.”
He also encouraged looking into windows to take photographs. Over and over and over, he described his efforts as being “edgy.”
Let’s tackle blogging versus journalism first, because Todd was coming from a stance of identifying as a journalist while the room was full of bloggers. While both journalists and bloggers can start with just a website, journalists are expected to generally follow certain codes of ethics on their work. Here is an example from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) code of ethics:
- Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
- Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
- Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
- Treat all subjects with respect and dignity.
- While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
Food blogging is not, as a general standard, traditional journalism. The average piece is planned well in advance, and is done to introduce the reader to an idea, a recipe, or a location. While there are food news groups, like Eater, most bloggers are not writing for them.
However, that does not excuse us from respecting people and their use of restaurants. Many people, myself included, often treat restaurants as a private-public space. You’re tucked into a table with friends or family, or maybe on a date, and the buzz of the room keeps anonymity somewhat high. I know that I would not generally like to be photographed when I’m eating. I may be one of the daintiest barbecue eaters I’ve ever met, but I generally want to be left alone to have my moment with some pulled pork. And I might consent to being photographed, but I would absolutely want to discuss permission before the camera is even raised, even for a snapshot on twitter.
Here’s the thing: when you enter an open restaurant or eating space to take photos for a post, you will have time to evaluate the situation. And there will be time to ask permission. Asking here is the important part: Todd Coleman was supporting not doing that, as it would make the image “less edgy.” At most, he would ask after the shot was taken, but implied that he rarely followed up with people after the images went live.
These photos were commercial images, sold to Saveur and other major publications. (It should hold for all food work, but I’m starting with Todd’s work here.) They were commercial images taken in restaurants, in a non-commercial photography setting. No model releases were signed, and in some cases Todd Coleman stated that did not even know his subjects’ names. Some times they didn’t know they were being photographed at all.
I do not want to be part of a system where taking a good image is something that is encouraged over the needs of our subjects.
The material covered in Todd Coleman’s photographs was of daily food scenes, not active events. This is not “news,” but it can follow the NPPA guidelines. For example, from their recommendations for journalist behavior, they recommend that journalists “strive to be unobtrusive and humble in dealing with subjects.” This was an absolute failure of Todd Coleman, and, by extension, of IFBC for not commenting on it being part of their standards.
Privilege in media
This must also include a racial context, because that’s a lens we’re filtering all this through. IFBC 2014 was a mainly white, female, audience, and Todd Coleman was there as a white man presiding over the group. As a white, female attendee who is also a feminist, I’m sure I didn’t feel it as harshly, but I was rather aware of it.
We white people have traditionally had far, far more control over how our personal images were used in the media. This still goes on today, with articles about how black victims get treated better by traditional news than white shooters. While hopefully our writing on cake won’t be that awful, it is part of the cultural lens through which our images are being received. We can’t ignore it just because we’re food bloggers, because non-white people deal with it every single day and in every aspect of their lives.
Therefore, as photographers, especially for the white photographers, that means we must ask before taking pictures. We must be respectful. We must do our part to do better, because like it or not, we’re coming in with waves of privilege that we don’t always even notice.
Also, while I didn’t hear this directly, one attendee heard Todd Coleman describe some asian eaters in one picture Yakuza after mentioning that he didn’t know their names. Later, on the IFBC Attendees and Alumni Facebook page, this was justified as one person “knowing what Yakuza looked like” and identifying the unnamed individuals as Yakuza. This is not something we should, as a group, be encouraging. Ever. We should not force assumed identities on people, ever.
Harassment within blogging
During the lecture, I began tweeting my comments, which were mainly about the shock and sadness that a major con I had enjoyed so much last year was supporting this kind of attitude. (Feel free to skim them: they start off with my adding “squid” into sentences, and then get serious fast.)
Some women replied harshly, insulting me, commenting that I wasn’t glad enough to be at IFBC, among other fun things. Have a snippet:
So here’s the big question: Why was it so important that I be silent? Because it wasn’t just one angry tweet; I received several, mainly from two bloggers. On how I wasn’t humble enough, that I should be quiet, that I didn’t represent the group.
Food blogging and personal branding is carefully curated, even on twitter. Fighting the status quo or not getting along with the right people risks losing sponsorships, your job, or future job opportunities. And so there’s not only heavy editing of reality in terms of what gets posted, but an impetus to kick out anyone who can’t get in line. You must be authentic, of course, but not too authentic, or else you’re not marketable enough.
That doesn’t explain why I was worth targeting. I think that what happened online during IFBC is a demonstration of groupthink/policing and, honestly, internalized misogyny. When you tell someone they’re not “humble enough,” when you’re devaluing the concepts they’re discussing, the general implication is that you want them to file back into the group: belong or leave. This is something I had really hoped to escape after finishing middle school. Group policing is done, in the end, to protect oneself. It’s easy to believe that my actions are ‘bad’ because I’m not exactly in line, and so I’ll ‘deserve’ any punishment I receive by not being polite. This must change.
In order to build a better system of food writing, we can’t simply be bubbly towards those who agree with us and shun the non-believers. We need people who will question things, and we will have to disagree on occasion. We must tackle the tough and awkward issues, like the fact that IFBC, with International in its name, was a mainly white audience. We must discuss ethics and consent within media. To not do so closes off opportunities to grow and change as a writing community. And I do not feel that being critical means our work will suffer for it. With the ability to speak and openly discuss ways to make things better, and to actually work towards those changes, our writing will improve. And I can’t wait to read it.